(MayoClinic.com) In this interview, Eric Tangalos, M.D., a primary care physician and co-director for education at the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., explains the diagnostic process when a person is experiencing memory problems or other impairments in thinking skills. An accurate diagnosis is a critical first step that helps ensure appropriate treatment, care, family education and plans for the future.
The Alzheimer's Association has a list of 10 warning signs that can help you recognize early indications:
An important factor is that problems affect how well a person functions in everyday life. For example, it's easy to forget where you've parked your car in a parking lot. That's happened to all of us, but most of us eventually find our cars. People with Alzheimer's disease may not only forget the car's location but also lose the ability to adjust and solve the problem of the lost car.
When warning signs of Alzheimer's disease appear, it's important for a person to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis.How does a doctor make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's?
The primary tools we use to diagnose Alzheimer's disease are tests we can perform in the office or clinic. Additional laboratory tests or brain-imaging tests also provide useful information for diagnosis, including ruling out other diseases that cause similar symptoms. Our goal is to answer the following questions:
We check the thyroid, to rule out problems there. And, in many cases, symptoms of depression can be mistaken for Alzheimer's — and vice versa. We also routinely look for vitamin B-12 deficiency.
And we always make sure that the person is generally healthy and doesn't have some other serious medical problem that would complicate the diagnosis. A lot of older people have other medical problems that just make things worse — such as heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease or any combination of these.How do you assess memory problems and other symptoms?
We conduct relatively simple, objective tests in which we ask people to answer questions or perform tasks associated with memory, abstract thinking, problem solving, language usage and related skills that we collectively refer to as cognitive skills. Scores on such tests enable us to quantify with some reliability a person's degree of cognitive impairment.
This series of clinical assessments and a general physical exam often provide enough information to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. But when the diagnosis isn't clear, we depend on additional tests.What lab tests do you use?
The primary role of lab tests — usually with blood samples — is to rule out other disorders that can cause some symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease, such as a thyroid disorder or vitamin B-12 deficiency.What is the current role of brain-imaging tests?
Alzheimer's disease results from the progressive loss, or degeneration, of brain cells. This degeneration can show up in a variety of ways in brain scans. But these scans alone aren't enough to make a diagnosis. This is because there's a lot of overlap in what we consider normal age-related change in the brain and abnormal change.
But brain imaging can help:
The brain-imaging technologies most often used are:
Researchers are working on new diagnostic tools that may enable us to diagnose Alzheimer's disease earlier in the course of the disease, when symptoms are very mild or before symptoms appear. Scientists are investigating a number of disease markers — genes, disease-related proteins and imaging procedures — that may accurately and reliably indicate whether someone has Alzheimer's disease and how much the disease has progressed. However, more research on these tests is necessary.What's the benefit of an early diagnosis?
Reluctance to go to the doctor when you or a family member has memory problems is understandable. People hide their symptoms, or family members cover for them. That's easy to understand because Alzheimer's is such a dreaded disease. And many people wonder if there's any point in a diagnosis if there's no cure for the disease.
It's true that if a person has Alzheimer's or a related disease, we can't offer a cure. But getting an early diagnosis can be beneficial. If a person has another treatable condition that's causing the cognitive impairment or somehow complicating the impairment, then we can start treatments.
And for those with Alzheimer's disease, we can offer drug and nondrug interventions that may ease the burden of the disease. We usually prescribe drugs that may slow the decline in memory and other cognitive skills. Also, we can educate caregivers and a person with Alzheimer's about strategies to enhance the living environment, establish routines, plan activities and manage changes in skills in order to minimize the effect of the disease on everyday life.
Importantly, an early diagnosis also helps a person with Alzheimer's disease, family and caregivers plan for the future. They have the chance to make informed decisions on a number of issues, such as:
When we tell a person and family members about an Alzheimer's diagnosis, we help them understand that Alzheimer's is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. We talk about what capacities are preserved and look to keep a person as healthy and safe as possible.
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